Few people ever get to venture inside the Big Brother House. Three dozen contestants a year (and the production team, obviously), but not many more. So when the National Trust blagged tickets for 500 members of the public to gain entry, I got in quick and grabbed one. They've admitted it was a stunt, a promotional gimmick to broaden their appeal with younger Britons. If so I'm not sure it worked, because the party I went round with last weekend were mostly over 40 rather than under. But the Trust earned plentyofpublicity out of the whole affair, first when the tickets went on sale and then again when they threw a midweek BB party. And I got to venture inside the Big Brother House to see what it's really like, not just how it appears on the TV. They're two very different things.
My fellow temporary housemates and I rendezvoused at Elstree Studios, which lies at the less glamorous end of Borehamwood High Street just round the back of the Tesco megastore. Our short queue was overshadowed by scores of kids and their chaperones waiting to be allowed inside for Friday Download, while around the corner the audience for Strictly were arriving. Just because Big Brother's off the air until 2014 doesn't mean there's nothing else going on here. We were led first to the set of Big Brother's Little Brother, or Big Brother's Big Mouth, or Big Brother's Bit On The Side, whatever it's called these days. It looked unexpectedly cheap, a few clustered seating areas in front of a gaudy rave-style background, but that's the magic transforming power of the TV camera. And the main house isn't nextdooor, that's an illusion, it's at the other end of the studio complex (past the George Lucas Stage).
Stage one of our tour involved entry to the camera runs. While the programme's filming you have to keep dead quiet in here - there are lots of signs up warning staff of this, and of doors not to be opened under any circumstances without talking to the gallery. Lift a black cloth and you could look directly inside, clear as day, then move further up the corridor for a slightly different view. The next tour group were already inside the living area, oblivious to our gestures, or so we thought until two pushed up close to the glass and waved back. The layout of the house is very compact, and very clever from a surveillance point of view. The living area is surrounded, then the garden is a separate enclave, with a variety of minor rooms leading off in the gaps. There's the task room, the bedroom and bathroom, plus a gym which looks huge on the TV but is barely large enough for two exercise machines and a fridge full of energy drinks. We passed several dozen mirrored windows altogether, each individually numbered, any of which could be key to filling a few minutes of tomorrow's episode.
On hearing that we were about to enter the house proper, certain tour guests let out an audible squeal. These weren't National Trust members come to visit a non-stately home, they were BB viewers and superfans come to visit Mecca. You could tell this when the door to the bedroom opened and they stepped inside, grinning, and proceeded to take photos toprove they were here. Photos by the bookcase. Photos sat at the mirror using the Celebrity hairdriers. Photos lying on a not-very-wide double bed. Photos sprawled on the quilt cover with the wife thumbs aloft would you take our photo thanks. I meanwhile was trying to take photos without people in, but that wasn't easy with sixteen people in a confined space, which is of course how Big Brother works.
Next, to the garden. Blimey the actual Big Brother garden where hundreds of tasks and tens of thousands of bitchy conversations have taken place over the years. If anything this was a little larger than it looks on the TV, many of us said so. Enough space to perform or cavort on the central lawn - astroturf, obviously. Enough nooks to keep all gossip private - save for an audience watching avidly elsewhere. In one corner this year's jacuzzi, a circle of roped-off water surrounded by decking. In the opposite corner a run of raised triangular beds, thickly cultivated with resplendent bedding plants. Laid out in the centre, a suite of designer garden furniture with cushions (available to buy on the Channel 5 website). Above our heads a swathe of netting strung across the entire garden, either to keep the birds out or to prevent unwelcome aerial marketing. I looked at the walls to determine how easy it would be to climb out - I'd say not very, indeed you're almost certainly better off kicking a wall or door down to escape this house of mirrors.
For the housemate in need of solace, a variety of boltholes exist. One door leads to the bathroom, a riot of pink and purple with two baths set into the floor. I got this room entirely to myself, apart from the Endemol security guard keeping watch to check I didn't climb into the tub, turn on the shower or run off with the handwash. Nextdoor was the jail, a barred area with two chairs (and a Fire Exit sign), which we could enter and leave of our own free will. An outdoor shower was available, presumably to boost ratings, plus a true inanimate celebrity, the Big Brother mangle. And then up the back stairs was the treehouse, with space for a cramped sofa and an outside terrace with a panorama over all the garden action. From up here the illusion was shattered, with the roof of the George Lucas Stage poking above the artificial greenery, spotlights and scaffolding.
What we'd all been waiting for, of course, was the opportunity to enter the main living space "where everything happens". It's been decorated and remodelled in a variety of ways over the years, but is currently in glitzy Celebrity Big Brother mode. On the sofas at one end was a surprise, three actual genuine housemates were here to meet and greet and have a chat. Further delighted squeals ensued as members of the party recognised "ooh Charlie" and "the twins Joe and Jack". I had no idea, having given up on Big Brother when it transferred to Channel 5, having previously watched 95%-religiously. Had this been Craig or Nadia or Ulrika I'd have known the entire backstory, but as it was I was merely a bystander. Elsewhere in this long large room were the kitchen and dining area, plus the tiny store room (stacked with supplies from a particularly task-fail week). I enjoyed looking round at first, but was slightly less enamoured after 30 minutes in the same confined space. Others were having a great time exploring in pairs or interacting in small groups, whereas I was wandering alone, suffering somewhat because the House's architecture demands human contact.
And then the highlight. Each group in the tour party was sequentially summoned ("This is Big Brother. Would Natalie and Callum please come to the Diary Room?") via an official loudspeaker announcement. It'll never happen again, so make the most. This year's Diary Room is at the top of the main staircase, which meant the opportunity to sample an eviction walk during the ascent. Pushing open the door, a short passage led to the sanctuary itself, with this year's iteration of The Chair floodlit in one corner. I took a seat, looking back the other way towards... well, not much really, just a very small camera. So inconspicuous that when Big Brother herself started talking to me I turned instead to the loudspeaker at my side rather than facing front. We met her later in the tour, one of the actual team who take turns on the programme, squeezed into a corner of the production gallery. What must she have thought as I extemporised awkwardly from The Chair, pausing too quickly for reaction and receiving none? I can't banter to camera convincingly, I proved that fast, and all too swiftly my spell in the hotseat was over. "Thank you," Big Brother intoned, "you may leave the Diary Room". I'll not be back, I wouldn't want to, and they wouldn't have me. But I loved my look round one of the most famous houses in the country, and next time BB's back I may even watch again, now I know how the magic works.
» They didn't let us take photos of anything you couldn't see on TV. But you'll be wanting 20 photos anyway.